Remarks by Ambassador Katherine Tai at the University of Southern California

LOS ANGELES – United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai today delivered a major speech at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business in recognition of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AA and NHPI) Heritage Month.  Ambassador Tai’s speech focused on how the Biden-Harris Administration is partnering with AA and NHPI communities across the country to build a freer and fairer America, and highlighted the strength and resilience that AA and NHPI communities have demonstrated over generations.
Ambassador Tai's remarks as prepared for delivery are below:
Hello, Los Angeles!  Hello, USC!

It is great to be back in Southern California.  

I would like to thank the University of Southern California and the Marshall School of Business for hosting us.  President Folt, Dean Garrett, Board of Trustees, it is a pleasure to meet you, and thank you for having me.

Distinguished guests and students—I am delighted to be here with you.

This is a beautiful campus, and you’re surrounded by towering palm trees.

Former Los Angeles poet laureate Luis Rodriguez wrote in his “Love Poem to LA”—“the palm trees that fail to topple in robust winds . . . like its people, with solid roots, supple trunks, resilient.”  

Rodriguez knew that the palms—and the people here—don’t let the wind knock them down.

Resilient people.  That is the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander community.

Yesterday, I visited Monterey Park, about twelve miles from here.

The shooting in January was tragic.  Lives cut short.  Families devastated.  People searching for answers in the midst of unspeakable grief.  

But Monterey Park will not be defined by tragedy.

In the 1970s, the city became known as the country’s first suburban Chinatown.  

As more AA and NHPIs moved in, they encountered resistance from the residents who were already there.  Famously, there was an English language-only movement led by people who were upset about the influx of Asians into their city.

That didn’t stop Monterey Park, though.  Look at the city now—it is a vibrant, thriving, and diverse community, a community that has rallied around its members.

That is what Monterey Park and our AA and NHPI communities stand for.  

I am here representing President Biden’s Cabinet as the first Asian American and first woman of color confirmed as the U.S. Trade Representative.  

But I also represent all of us—the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities—in the President’s Cabinet.

This is an incredible honor for me, and one that I do not take lightly.  

My parents were born in mainland China and grew up in Taiwan.  In the 1960s, President Kennedy’s immigration reforms allowed them to come to America as graduate students and ultimately serve the country they would call home.  

Over fifteen years ago, I joined the agency that I now lead, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, as an attorney.  

While filling out the paperwork, I noticed that my parents were naturalized several years after I was born.  And that’s when I realized that I was the first American in my family.  

My dad conducted groundbreaking research at Walter Reed, helping advance treatments for American GIs fighting in Vietnam.  My mom still works at the National Institutes of Health, developing treatments for people with opioid addiction.

And I have often told people—including President Biden—that I’m proud to be a second-generation American and a second-generation public servant.

My parents worked hard to provide us with opportunities, and they always reminded us that the fruit we should reap isn’t just personal success—it is serving others.

So, it is no coincidence that I spent most of my career in government, serving the American people.

I remember one of the first cases I argued at the World Trade Organization in Geneva.  I was there with my USTR co-counsel, whose parents had emigrated from India.

As we stated that we were presenting the case on behalf of the United States of America, we beamed with pride knowing that, here we were, two daughters of immigrants, fighting for the nation that had opened doors of hope and opportunity to our families.

That’s my story, my American experience.  

That no matter what you look like, what you eat, where you study, where you work, and what you believe—you are welcomed as a treasured character in our American story.  

That’s because our diversity is not just one aspect of who we are as a nation—it is the core of our identity.

We are a community of communities, a land of original inhabitants, immigrants, and sojourners from all seven continents.

We are strong because we are different, not in spite of it—and President Biden’s cabinet is stronger because it looks like America and represents the American experience.  

Just to give you some examples—Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior.  She is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a 35th generation New Mexican, and is the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet Secretary.  

Secretary Haaland now leads the very agency that was once the federal government’s arm of oppression against Native Americans.

Another example is Isabella Guzman, who leads the Small Business Administration.  She worked beside her father in his chain of veterinary hospitals right here in Los Angeles, so she understands small businesses.  That’s what makes her such a powerful member of the President’s team.

Speaking of daughters of small business owners, we also have Julie Su, Acting Secretary of Labor.  Julie has been a life-long champion for workers and our communities.  She fought against wage theft and trafficking, and litigated countless cases, right here in Los Angeles, at Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

And of course, our Vice President, Kamala Harris.  She was born in Oakland to parents who emigrated from India and Jamaica.

Vice President Harris swore me in for my current role.  At the ceremony, she surprised me by knowing that it was also my birthday that day.  And she surprised me again when she turned to my mom and said, “Happy Birthday to you!”  

My mother was delighted and said to the Vice President, “You know, in Asian cultures, we congratulate the mother on a child’s birthday because the mother did all the work that day.”  And Vice President Harris turned to my mother and said, “I know.”  

So, let that sink in.  The Vice President of the United States gets us because she is one of us.

But as a nation, we haven’t always lived up to our ideals.  The American experience is not perfect—it is an ongoing experiment, in constant need of perfecting.

In Washington, DC, one of the newest museums on the National Mall is the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

I still remember my first visit.  

As you enter the museum, you are confronted with a map of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  A web of arrows crisscrosses the map, symbolizing the supply chains of that era.  

Slaves help build this country.  Our economic might and dominance were built on the blood, sweat, and tears of people who were afforded no rights—even as we declared, at the birth of our nation, that “all men are created equal . . . and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Yet African Americans still face systemic injustices and biases throughout our society and economy.

Our nation’s ideals have not always matched our reality, including for AA and NHPIs.  

During the height of the pandemic, certain politicians used reckless rhetoric targeting AA and NHPIs as public health scapegoats or questioning our loyalty.  

Words matter, and in this case, they undoubtedly emboldened and enabled violence against our communities.  

According to the organization STOP AAPI Hate, between March 2020 and March 2022, there were over 11,000 incidents of anti-Asian hate in America.  California alone had more than 4,000.

Half of AA and NHPIs reported not feeling safe going out.  We fear for our family members, our elders, our children—and ourselves.  

Physical violence is abhorrent.  So are the other forms of bigotry we face.

In February, one of Congresswoman Judy Chu’s Republican colleagues openly questioned her loyalty to the United States.

Judy was the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress in 2009.  Before that, she was a member of the Monterey Park City Council, served three terms as mayor, and was later elected to the state Assembly.

She is a patriot and devoted public servant who has represented the San Gabriel Valley with honor. 

To question her because of her Chinese descent is wrong and un-American.

Undoubtedly, tensions between the United States and the People’s Republic of China are high these days.  The U.S. – China relationship is consequential, complex, and competitive.  

We are the two largest economies in the world, so how we relate to each other not only affects the two of us, but the entire world.

Make no mistake—there are real challenges in this relationship.  

The PRC’s growth and development over the last few decades have been phenomenal, but the impacts—especially the negative impacts on other economies, including ours—are having consequences that we cannot ignore. 

But to appropriately respond to the challenge that we are facing, we need to be disciplined in clearly defining what the challenge is and what it is not.  

The more we can focus on the substance and filter out the noise, the easier it will be to define the problem.  Once you clearly define it, only then can you formulate solutions that are tailored to it.

The problem isn’t “Chinese-ness” or “Asian-ness.”  The United States is a Pacific nation—Venice Beach is just fourteen miles from here.  We share deep ties and people-to-people bonds with Asia.

Let’s be clear—our concerns are with the Chinese government’s policies and practices—and not with the Chinese people or with people of Chinese descent or heritage.  

We can fiercely defend what is ours and also fiercely embrace our different roots and upbringings.  

In fact, we can and must do both.  As a nation, we know too well what happens when we fail to do this the right way.  

In 1871, at least seventeen Chinese residents of Los Angeles, including a fifteen-year-old, were killed by a mob of 500 people.  It was a culmination of growing anti-Chinese sentiment in the city at that time.

During World War II, Japanese Americans in California were forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated in camps—including the family of Norm Mineta, whom I’ll talk more about in a moment.  

You may also remember the story of Vincent Chin.  This summer marks the 41st anniversary of his brutal killing in Detroit.  

He—a Chinese American—was murdered by two white men upset about the competition U.S. companies faced from Japanese automakers—he was beaten to death with a baseball bat.

After 9/11, Sikhs, Muslims, and Arab Americans were targeted, harassed, and wrongfully accused of being terrorists.

Secretary Norm Mineta—who was Secretary of Transportation at the time—did everything in his power to see that the injustices committed against him and his family during World War II were not replicated against people who appeared to be Middle Eastern or Muslim.

Norm was an inspiration and guiding light to many of us, and the example that he set is one we all need to keep in mind today.

We are facing some of the greatest challenges of our generation—rising geopolitical tensions, a worsening climate crisis, increasing economic inequality.  These are not going away.

To be a strong, resilient nation, we must clearly define our challenges, take actions tailored to address those challenges, and never waver from pursuing our founding aspiration—to protect the unalienable rights of “We, the People”.

The engine of American greatness is that, for generations, America has opened its arms to the world—to people like Norm’s parents and my parents.  To come and put down roots.  To study, to invent, to cure, to clean, to cook, to build, to provide care.

There are deep disparities in our society—in our laws, policies, and institutions—that fail to provide equal opportunity to individuals and communities.  

But that does not mean we should stop bending the arc of the moral universe closer toward justice, just as Dr. King said.  

That is why, since day one, President Biden has charged the federal government to do something about this.  

To advance equity for communities that have long been underserved.  To address systemic racism in our policies and programs.

Making government work better for you—by improving accessibility for people with disabilities and through language access services.

Things like language access hit close to home for many of us, as our parents or grandparents seek medical care at hospitals, or try to file for Medicare, file their taxes, or receive their Social Security checks.

We’re also empowering our small businesses and entrepreneurs.  We’ve been putting together economic summits in cities across the country where we literally are connecting them with federal resources and with each other.

I want you to know that there is an entire team in the White House that has your back, working tirelessly around the clock.

Trade also has an important role to play.

Every time I walk into my office, I’m reminded that we have a responsibility—a calling—to use trade as a force for good, to advocate for fairness and create real opportunities for all our people.  

That is why one of my priorities as the U.S. Trade Representative is to lift up historically excluded voices.  

In a world where large corporate interests too often dominate the conversations around trade policymaking, we are bringing diverse perspectives to the table and incorporating their priorities.  

We are putting workers and small businesses at the center of U.S. trade policy by making sure our policies reflect the needs and desires of all Americans across our economy, not just the ones that can afford Washington lobbyists.

We have a great opportunity to advance inclusive economic policies.  

In our interconnected world, everything we do beyond our borders affects our people here at home.  So, we are putting American workers and communities at the center—we are fighting for them; we are fighting for you.

Nearly two decades ago, I began my journey in government knowing that the American people—collectively—can write a new story of America.

That is why this speech is for you.

Our communities have been a cornerstone of our nation for generations.  

We laid the foundations of our roads and railways.  We built our schools and skyscrapers, tilled the soil, reared our cattle.  We penned poems, dropped albums, and painted murals.  

Our cultures were always there, always rich and vibrant, and I can’t tell you how proud I was to see works like “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” sweep the Oscars this year.  

Netflix series like “Never Have I Ever” and movies like “Minari” are not just bingeworthy content—they are a celebration of our heritage.

They tell our stories—who we are and where we hail from.  We are mainstream now—including right here in La La Land.

From L.A. to Atlanta, Chicago to Houston, there is not an inch of this land that doesn’t tell our tale, and commemorating our different roots is essential to shaping who we want to become as a nation.

We will continue to write the next chapter of the American story—one of perseverance, resilience, strength, and hope.

That is because we’ve always been about community.

On the hilltops or in the valleys, through trials and triumphs, it was always about celebrating and walking with one another.  Because we know, deep inside, that we are stronger when we come together.  

We will continue to push and pull for one another, to fight for justice and equity, and to build a freer and fairer America.

Where our grandmothers don’t have to walk to the grocery store in fear.  Where our daughters and nephews don’t have to worry about being bullied and beaten because of their skin color.  

I see hope—because of people like you.  You’re organizing, you’re taking concrete action, you’re leading.  

Because of organizations like STOP AAPI Hate and AAPI Equity Alliance.  Because of groups like Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California and Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment.  

And the Organization of Chinese Americans of Greater Los Angeles and the Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics.

And of course, our student leaders here at USC—the USC Asian Pacific American Student Services and the USC Asian Pacific American Student Assembly.

Your work matters.  You are bringing real change to every street corner and every city, and I thank you and commend you.

Every one of you holds the pen in writing the next chapter in the American story.

Our communities are not monolithic.  We are not perfect.  Progress isn’t linear—we know that.  

But each day, as we sow trust instead of suspicion, kindness instead of hate, and love instead of indifference—we will see that what sometimes feels like barren paths in the wilderness will be overcome with blooms and blossoms of every shade.

No one story is going to look exactly like another.  But we all make up a greater mosaic.  We are adding our pieces to it, just like our parents, and their parents, and their parents.

So, the question is, what kind of story do we want to write?  

Our story is about being visible, together.  Our story is about having each other’s backs.

To the families barely making rent every month, to the single moms and dads working two, three jobs to make ends meet—I want to say that I see you.  

To those living under constant anxiety because of your immigration status, and those who had to watch their parents or kids endure ill health because you don’t have health insurance—I see you.

To the first-generation college students, and to the adoptees growing up with names that you have to explain to your co-workers or neighbors—I see you.

You are not invisible.  I see you and I hear you.  The President sees you and hears you.  And we’re fighting like hell for you.

Because you belong.  

You’ve earned your place as a heroine in this new story.  Take your rightful place—center stage—and help drive our nation forward.  

The United States needs you, our Administration needs you, I need you—and we need each other.  

This month, we celebrate AA and NHPI heritage month.  But look around you—we have people here from so many communities, so many colors, so many backgrounds.

This is our heritage—one another.

We’re not only Asian Americans, or Black Americans, or Mexican Americans, or Indian Americans—we are all Americans.

In his State of the Union Address, President Biden said that he would “finish the job”—and I’m here to tell you that we will run this race together—as long as it takes.

For equal rights.  For equal opportunities.

Like the majestic palm trees that watch over this city, no wind will topple us.  

Not today.  Not in this town, not in this state, not in our great nation—and not even in any of the universes in “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once”!

Thank you.